Capsule Stage Reviews: A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, Margo Veil: An Entertainment, Life Is Happy and Sad

A Christmas Carol Since 1988, the Alley Theatre has gently reminded Houstonians of the true meaning of Christmas with a lovely rendition of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. This year's dark and moving production, adapted and originally put together years ago by Michael Wilson, stars Jeffrey Bean as the meanest dude in Christmas history — old Ebenezer Scrooge. He's cheap, grouchy and stuck with the name Ebenezer, but that doesn't stop him from making us laugh with his wicked old ways or, eventually, breaking our hearts with his sad childhood and lonely old life. Directed with tender care by James Black (who also plays housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and scary, chain-rattling ghost Jacob Marley), the production has managed to stay amazingly fresh over the decades. Tony Straiges's artfully minimalist set frames the stage with two winding, wooden staircases hooked together by a long, wobbly bridge. On this dynamic apparatus, Black is able to make us feel the incredible journey Scrooge makes across time and space as he travels from his cold counting house to Bob Cratchit's sad little kitchen, from the miser's boyhood school to his dark and lonely grave. The spirits of Christmas Past (Julia Krohn) and Present (David Rainey) both charmed and spooked the youngest members of a recent matinee audience, some of whom climbed into their mothers' laps over the course of the story. Both Krohn and Rainey have built larger-than-life characters that fill up the theater with musical speaking voices as they pass out sage wisdom on keeping a generous spirit. Elizabeth Bunch is especially memorable as both the funny, big-fannied Mrs. Fezziwig and as the angry Mrs. Cratchit. Paul Hope is also great fun as Mr. Fezziwig. Chris Hutchison makes a sympathetic Cratchit, and Charles Swan is memorable as Mr. Topper, an oddball Christmas party guest. Of course, none of this would mean anything without Scrooge, and Bean makes a richly conceived miser. Through December 27. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — LW

The Nutcracker It wouldn't be the holiday season without Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker. Once again, HB trots out Ben Stevenson's 1987 version of Clara's Christmas dream of a place where toys come to life and battle those pink rats, canons boom, cooks fly, and the Kingdom of the Sweets sparkles. For curmudgeony critics, the ballet can be a bit of a bore: The plot is sugar-wafer-thin, there's more British pantomime than dancing in the first act, and, well, we've seen this same version for two decades. But the magic of The Nutcracker lies not in it being a great ballet but in it being a great tradition. Maybe Artistic Director Stanton Welch is wise in not tinkering with his predecessor's version. This Nut is like mac 'n' cheese: comforting, familiar and filling. Even that annoying fat family in the party scene is a tradition, like your own annoying relatives come for the holidays. It helps that Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes still look dazzling, and that the Houston Ballet Orchestra can still raise goosebumps with Tchaikovsky's iconic score. There's also the thrill of seeing young dancers in their first solos — multiple casts ensure you'll see someone new doing something lovely. So suspend your inner Scrooge and enjoy. When the flakes fall gently on the dancers in the snow scene, it will melt the most cynical of hearts. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave., 713-227-2787. — MG

Margo Veil: An Entertainment To thine own self be true, Shakespeare once said. That old chestnut might apply to unhappy, unfulfilled young Margo Veil (Candyce Prince), if only she could find her real self. That she seems to inhabit a whole range of people in and outside of her natural body is part of the great fun to be had in Len Jenkins's merry entertainment, subtitled as such, just in case we're not sure how to take this surreal little jaunt through Margo's life and libido. Her out-of-body travels, which start out as a funky radio play, involve a sleazy theatrical agent (John Harvey), an insane-asylum inmate (Jonathan Colunga), a truly bad playwright (Salvador Chevez), a Lithuanian blind woman (Sara Jo Dunstan), a "body translation" specialist called Big Betty (Lyndsay Sweeney), a magician (Mike Switzer), an over hammed-up actor (Will Morgan), a drama teacher (Elizabeth Seabolt-Esparza), a guest appearance by Alice in Wonderland (Ashley Allison), and a weird little totemic statue that might hold the clue to all this theatrical wonderment. There's also a rich assortment of other characters, all adroitly acted to keep this play blissfully moving. Under the tight direction of Phillip Hays, Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company runs with this phantasmagoric piece of avant-garde theater and makes it dance. The detritus-filled set decoration by Ananka Kohnitz sets the film-noirish mood perfectly, as do the '40s costumes by Dana Pike and the foggy lighting by Kevin Taylor. Playwright Jenkins's rich, ripe evocation of memory and the multiple lives we all live — surprisingly, at the same time — is the most unusual, and cheery, of stage holiday treats this season. Through December 19. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-418-0585. — DLG

Life Is Happy and Sad The emotional power of Life Is Happy and Sad lies in its disarming sincerity. The play, arranged by Catastrophic Theatre Artistic Director Jason Nodler from work by musician/artist Daniel Johnston, tells the story of one man's desire to connect with friends and the larger world through art and the simplicity of taped letters. The sweet truthfulness of the central character — Daniel Johnston is played here by a very compelling Matthew Brownlie — does not keep Nodler's production from being highly experimental. Everything from Kevin Holden's charmed setting, made up of stitched-together bed sheets and a tiny musician's practice room, to the odd collage of scenes, created from Johnston's own words, spoken into a tape recorder as he tried to develop new songs, is unexpected and fresh. Brownlie carries most of the show on his new-to-acting shoulders. The two-hour production is almost all monologue. And a lot of it is tough stuff: Johnston rambling about his deep loneliness, his nervous breakdown, his family who doesn't understand and, most of all, his desire to make music that is honest. Brownlie pulls all this off, for the most part, though he shines brightest when the music starts. The powerful music is the best reason to see this show, and it's stunning to watch Brownlie change from a shy, lonely, bumbling guy trying to make songs on a practice piano into a super-sexy rock star in complete command of the stage with his band. The two sides of the character demonstrate with moving clarity that life is indeed happy and sad. Through December 19. DiverseWorks ArtSpace, 1117 East Freeway, 713-522-2723. — LW

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Marene Gustin
Lee Williams